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"Life in the UK"
Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale
Vikes Victorious, Steelers stumble to 0-4 in London
The Pittsburgh Steelers visited two places this past Sunday: London and Stark Reality.
Until now, Steelers players and coaches had viewed last season's 8-8 record as a worst case scenario for 2013, something to be improved upon, with Pittsburgh's role as playoff contender as the franchise's role in life. Anything worse was unthinkable, unmentionable.
With veteran guard Ramon Foster injured during the game, center Maurkice Pouncey already gone for the year and the running game feeble in any case, Big Ben struck when possible in London, but Roethlisberger (36 of 51 or 383 yards, 1 TD) looked cumbersome between occasional big plays, terrorized by Jared Allen, throwing off-target under pressure. He lacked experienced receivers, protection, or any kind of run game, yet with the moxie of earlier years, he willed the Steelers back from 34-17 down in the third quarter to within one scoring play with a minute left, driving Pittsburgh into the Vikings red zone… and then, with cruel inevitability, sacked, fumbling, with the ball recovered by Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams with seconds left.
Such is the story for the Steelers this season. There's no longer any way to avoid it. They'd tried putting their fingers to their ears when anyone spoke of being 'in transition', but unless they return from their bye week inspired, renewed, and magically injury-free, the new whisper may be 'rebuilding'.
In the post-game conference, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin – for whom 0-4 is a country far more foreign that England – sped through questions, with the shaken frustrations of a man emerging painfully from denial, yet undaunted by the task:
"We're going to focus on getting better. As long as I see belief and effort and continued improvement in detail – because that's what's going to change the outcome of these games. If I don't, they aren't going to be a part of it, whoever they may be. It's just that simple."
As for identifying their root problem: "It's fundamentals, not anything mystical".
While Ben Roethlisberger's fantasy yardage looked a lot prettier than the execution on the field, the Steelers' running game was in sharp contrast to that of the victorious Vikings. Pittsburgh's leading rusher, Le'Veon Bell had 57 yards on 16 carries. Vikings legend Adrian Peterson had more than that on one play, finishing with 23 carries for 140 yards. A 7-yard reception for Toby Gerhart was only time another back even touched the ball for the Vikings.
The other marked difference was pressure. Getting his first start as a Viking in replacement of Christian Ponder, quarterback Matt Cassel looked calm. composed and ready for the job, 16 of 25 for 248 yards is far from eye-popping, but he had time to survey the field while Roethlisberger stagger-stepped left and right to avoid the rush when he could. In all Beg Ben was felled 5 times, hurried frequently, while Cassel was sacked just once.
Jared Allen (2.5 sacks of Roethlisberger) looked as much relieved as pleased with the first Vikings win of the year, telling me the game was "...everything we wanted, great game, great atmosphere, great experience and a win".
"This is how it's supposed to feel" added fellow defender Chad Greenway. "In our league it's nip and tuck. We just hadn't made the critical plays in critical situations and today we were able to."
Critical plays are how the Vikings are 1-3, Steelers 0-4. After some blow-outs between contenders and also-rans, Wembley enjoyed a fierce, high-scoring battle. That the Vikings won 34-27 may still be a footnote to this NFL season, but the struggle made for spectacle, and for another team – the Jacksonville Jaguars – the support for the Vikings, with many neutrals swinging behind them once the game was underway, may be a sign that Brits are ready to make these long-haul trips feel like home for the designated team.
"It felt like a home game", Greenway confirmed, "The Vikings fans, even if they weren't fans they chose to be fans of us today and that was pretty cool."